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Getting Physical

by Jon Weiner

Researchers are hoping to blaze a trail toward increasing physical activity among a U.S. population that has grown increasingly sedentary and overweight.

The two-year project, conducted by scientists in the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the Solimar Research Group in Ventura, will study urban trails used by pedestrians, bicyclists, joggers and skaters.

The project will explore how and why people use these trails and measure the physical activity of a sample of residents in surrounding neighborhoods to see if trail use and residents’ physical activity levels are related.

The ultimate goal of the study, said researchers, is to provide data that will help policymakers plan, design and manage multi-use trails to boost physical activity at a time when obesity, type 2 diabetes and other health problems associated with reduced physical activity are reaching epidemic proportions.

Research results may also influence transportation policies at the local, state and national levels.

Active Living Research, a national program supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, selected the research team as one of nine new grantees studying relationships between the built environment and physical activity levels.

“Little is known about why people use urban trails,” said Kim Reynolds, associate professor of preventive medicine in the Keck School of Medicine and the study’s principal investigator.

“For example,” Reynolds said, “if a trail connects business areas with residential areas, is it used more than one that passes only through residential neighborhoods? If our research could answer that question, it would help public officials make informed decisions about planning and designing trails.

“Ultimately, our goal is to link what we learn to actual implementation of policy,” she said.

The study will examine characteristics of three urban trails and of surrounding communities within one mile of those trails.

Researchers will select trails in different climatic zones that pass through ethnically diverse populations and extend 15 to 20 miles. They will determine the characteristics of trailside neighborhoods – e.g., their socio-economic status, density and crime rates – through U.S. census records, other social and economic data sources, local transportation network and land-use information used by planning departments, as well as personal inspections.

The researchers also will count the number and types of trail users and survey each trail in one-half-mile segments to determine its specific characteristics, such as amount of tree shade and effectiveness in connecting users to specific destinations.

In addition, 600 people living within one mile of the trails will be fitted with accelerometers to monitor and record their physical activity for seven days.

At the end of the project, the researchers will produce a report with recommendations to policy makers and urban design professionals that could help in the design and use of urban trails. Their findings will be disseminated through journal articles, a project Web site and policy papers.

Co-principal investigators of the study are Jennifer R. Wolch, a professor of geography and urban planning and director of the Center for Sustainable Cities at USC, and William Fulton, president of Solimar Research Group and a senior research fellow at USC’s Southern California Studies Center.

Getting Physical

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